Four stars, I guess! It’s honestly taken me almost a year to be able to even tentatively give this book a star rating. Read in May 2015.
I took a month and a half to think about it before I could write a review, too, and even now I’m not sure what I want to say. In many ways, it was THE book I’ve been looking for. It’s so aggressively female-centric, in a way that even books with the most kickass heroines never seem to be. Every time you see a noun like “doctor” or “engineer” or “vendor,” when your brain automatically assumes male just because that’s how it always is, the word is followed closely by a female pronoun and that jolt, the way it startled my thoughts out of their usual rut, is something I’ve been craving. I was captivated from the first few pages, invested even before I got to know the characters.
That feeling started to unravel somewhere past the halfway point. I was so confused by the ending. It was too fast, there was too much moving around in time, too many switches between perspectives. Meena’s and Mariama’s stories are too similar. In the end, they’re almost indistinguishable.
And in the end, to be honest, I felt betrayed by the author for letting me think she was telling a story in which Meena and Mariama were victims of unknown horrors, until all at the last minute I learned that actually they are the villains. Mariama is one of the villains of Meena’s story. Meena herself is the other. Not only is she not the victim, she is the attacker.
I felt angry when I finished, and I felt guilty for feeling angry, because I think maybe it’s prejudicial of me. Both of these women seem to have some kind of mental illness. Meena goes in and out of manic episodes, and both women have basically beserker rages of destruction and violence. Mariama eats a piece of sea snake that gets stuck in her chest and lives there for the rest of her life as some sort of violent embodiment of her rage at what happened to her mother. So was it unfair of me to have felt my sympathy draining away faster than I could hold onto it from the moment I began to realize that the nameless villains from the beginning of the book—the Ethiopian woman who murdered Meena’s parents, the person who put a venomous snake in Meena’s bed to attack her—are actually Mariama and Meena themselves? If they are suffering from mental illness, does that change what they’ve done? Should that change how I feel about them? I feel like it should, but it didn’t. I still felt angry.
It’s Mariama that confuses me the most. Meena mentions manic episodes in this first chapter, and her unreliability as narrator is clear from the first page, when she decides, on the basis of absolutely nothing, that she’s being chased by a terrorist organization which is not a terrorist organization.
But what explains Mariama? What even happens at the beginning with her mother? The doctor finds them again and so she just runs away forever? Because of that I assumed that her mother was dead, that the doctor (oh, excuse me, the sky-blue snake because phallic symbolism, look how clever) had found and attacked her. But according to the house in Djibouti… Maybe not? And what is the DEAL with the fucking kreen? What explains a child who becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman, begs the adult woman to have sex with her, conflates sexual desire and religious fervor and fixates both on the woman for the rest of her life even into adulthood even after the woman takes her to a festival and abandons her in the crowd because she was sexually abused herself and is disturbed by the child’s continual requests for sex?
What explains the child who becomes the woman who kills a rapist then leaves his victim to handle the blame, murders the man she loves and his girlfriend, performs a C-section on herself and leaves the baby in the lap of the dead woman without ever having realized that there was in fact a baby in her? And while we’re asking questions: Who ends up in the house in Djibouti?? Who is Meena’s grandmother? Who the fuck is Saha? How could either of those people exist, given what had happened up to that point?
Obviously I will need to read this book again, if only because of how much I wanted to love it based on what it was. I read pretty far back on Monica Byrne’s blog before even picking up the book, and her style really intrigues me. The premise of this book is so cool, the setting and cultural references all so interesting. I kept pulling up Google maps on my phone and following Mariama’s progress across Africa, and at the beginning when she meets the man eating a spicy green sauce, I thought how good it sounded and wished I could figure out what it was—then suddenly remembered that I’ve had that before, or something like it, that I loved it in my childhood and hadn’t thought of it in probably fifteen years. Monica Byrne knows her setting on more than a tourist level, and even though my experience with this book was complicated, I’m more than ready to try out the next book she writes.